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Challa Desisa looks quite alone, in her desk adorned with the flags of Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous region. Responsible for the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) in Ambo, a city located three hours west of the capital, Addis Ababa, he watches over an empty office.
“Our militants prefer not to come, to avoid the daily intimidation of the authorities”, he explains. Challa Desisa, himself a former political prisoner, peeks out the window and points to men posted across the street whom he suspects are informants.
The OFC headquarters in Ambo is one of the few to have escaped the government’s crackdown on nationalist opponents in this province of over 40 million inhabitants, which is home to the country’s main ethnic group, and of which is originally the Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. “A year ago, OFC had 206 hotlines in Ethiopia. There are only three left today “, summary Challa Desisa.
Like the other major opposition formation in the region, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), its party will boycott the parliamentary elections on Monday, June 21. A ballot “Which takes place in an extremely small political space, and while our leaders are behind bars”, castigates Merera Gudina, the president of the OFC.
Bitterness of the nationalist fringe
In the province, the legislative elections are being prepared in a climate of acute mistrust which speaks volumes about the instability of a country of some 110 million inhabitants. About ten constituencies will be deprived of a vote because of logistical problems. And in addition to the boycott of the opposition, the Ethiopian electoral commission rejected the candidacies of ten regional political parties.
“In the end, it is as if a region of an equivalent size to Morocco was voting in the absence of opposition”, compares a European diplomat. They seem far away, the hopes aroused in Oromia by the coming to power, in 2018, of Abiy Ahmed. The latter had been carried by the Oromo youth movements, the queerroo, which contested the hegemony of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (FPLT), at the head of the country for three decades.
Alas, expectations quickly gave way to the impatience and bitterness of the nationalist fringe, eager to impose its cultural-linguistic particularism. Early allies of Abiy Ahmed, the Oromo today feel betrayed by the united and centralized vision of Ethiopia promoted by the Prosperity Party, the formation of the prime minister.
The situation deteriorated markedly after the assassination of the icon and spokesperson of Oromo youth, the singer Hachalu Hundessa, killed in circumstances which remain unclear at the end of June 2020. His death set the region ablaze, triggering demonstrations colossal in which more than 200 people were killed.
“A repression never known”
The Internet was shut down for a month, media outlets were shut down and several thousand nationalists arrested. Among them, the charismatic Jawar Mohammed, passed, in less than a year, from the status of close friend of Abiy Ahmed to that of the number one opponent. Since then, censorship and repression have punctuated the daily life of the province.
In front of Ambo University, renamed “Hachalu-Hundessa campus”, today sits a statue of the artist, riding a horse, a symbolic animal of Oromo culture. She hardly appeals to the authorities, according to Tefera Dugasa, a abaa gadaa, a traditional governor in Oromo culture. “The president of the university has been in hiding since the beginning of May, he fears for his life”, he assures, attributing this forced exile to the pressures of the cadres of the Prosperity Party on the university.
“It is a repression like we had never known”, continues Tefera Dugasa, a abaa gadaa, a traditional governor in Oromo culture. The queerroo (“youth”, in the Afaan oromo language), the main players in past revolts, are now in scattered order. Some rallied to the government camp in exchange for financial benefits, others are in prison and a few took up arms. To those who fear an uprising of the Oromia after the election, theabaa gadaa replies that it will not be: “It is impossible to revolt today. People are too scared. “
“It’s go or die!” “
However, the insurgency led by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) “Has developed rapidly since June 2020 in western Oromia”, indicates a Western researcher who wishes to remain anonymous. Impossible to establish the contingent of this rebel group resulting from a split with the OLF, which leads the guerrillas by ambushing the federal forces. “It is not extremely well armed, but enjoys enormous support in the cities”, continues the academic.
With the extension of this guerrilla warfare, atrocities are multiplying on all sides. Each week, new assassinations are reported, targeting jumbled Oromo government officials, journalists or OLA sympathizers. The pressure is such that the Parliament hastened to label this organization as “Terrorist”.
Faced with the rebellion, Addis Ababa does not only mobilize the national army and the provincial forces of Oromia. Special forces from the neighboring Amhara region are also involved in law enforcement operations. The OLF even goes so far as to accuse Eritrean troops of having been specially dispatched to put down the rebellion.
“From the moment you criticize the government, you are treated as a terrorist, says a professor at Ambo University, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. It’s work or die! “
“I live in constant fear”
This man in his forties reveals that two of his cousins have already joined the rebellion. At his side, a young businessman from Ambo thinks he is doing the same after being threatened by local administrators because of his membership in the OFC. “They told me they would kill me, he specifies, showing the messages on his phone. Since then, I have barely left home, I live in constant fear. “
Perhaps he fears the same fate as Amanuel Wondimu, a 17-year-old boy executed in public in the town of Dembidolo in the far west of Oromia on May 11th. Convicted – without trial – of belonging to OLA, he was arrested, beaten and shot. Hundreds of residents were forced to come and watch the execution, which was filmed by the soldiers. “They rounded up all those who were in the city center for the occasion. They told us that those who tried to attack the security forces would meet the same fate as him ”, relates a resident.
Fear fuels frustration among Oromo activists. “We are witnessing an incredibly strong repression in the region, which feeds extremist groups”, concludes the researcher. Peaceful resistance no longer seems to be an option for nationalists, who dream more than ever of a new national novel for Oromia. Every day, new recruits are heading into the forests to join the ranks of the OLA which, according to its leader, Jaal Maroo, “Combats the deliberate marginalization of the Oromo in their quest for self-determination”.